One of the first observations many foreigners make upon arriving in Korea is often how attractive the Korean people are, be it that designer coat or handbag, the immaculately manicured nails or hair so glossy you can see your reflection in it.
However, recent statistics from the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ISAPS) have revealed a startling new development in the Korean quest for beauty. A development that seems to cross the line between simply wanting to look good, and obsession. These statistics show that, relative to the population size, South Korea has the highest rate of plastic surgery in the world. Other statistics from ISAPS show that one in five women in Seoul aged between 19 and 49 have undergone some form of cosmetic surgery.
The desired look in Korea is to have a ‘high’ and pointy nose, a sharp ‘V-line’ jaw, wider eyes, no cheekbones and a rounder forehead. Some might call it a more Westernised appearance. It’s ironic really that many Western girls (myself included!) wish they had stronger cheekbones while Korean girls wish that they didn’t, that skin whitening creams are just as popular here as tanning products are at home, and that most nose jobs carried out in Western countries make the nose smaller while in Korea they are made larger. Is the grass always greener?
The most popular procedure in Korea is blepharoplasty, or double eyelid surgery, when an incision is made in the eyelid to create a fold. This kind of surgery has become so commonplace that even the late President Roh Moo Hyun had it done to make his eyes appear larger for public appearances. Young girls finishing high school and going to university are often given ‘eye jobs’ as a graduation gift from their parents.
Liposuction, rhinoplasty, calf reshaping, and operations to reshape and shrink the jaw are also growing in popularity.
So who, or what, is behind this drastic demand for cosmetic surgery?
Many point the finger at the K-pop industry, filling our screens with impossibly beautiful young women, who many Korean teens consider to be role models. With the rise of the internet, and the intense scrutiny of ‘before and after’ photos, many K-pop singers and actresses are admitting to having had surgery. As a result, women are turning to plastic surgeons in the hope of looking like their favourite starlet. And as the ‘hallyu‘ wave spreads across the rest of Asia, South Korea’s clinics are being inundated with foreign clients, mainly Chinese, who also come with the wish of resembling Korean singers and actresses.
Or perhaps the reason is more deep-rooted than that. The traditional Confucian teachings state that altering the body is disrespectful to one’s parents, so much so that haircuts used to be frowned upon and cremation and organ donation were forbidden. However, looks and appearance are highly valued in Korean culture, as people tend to judge one another, and their social status, very quickly. Korean society is also über-competitive, with people always looking for an advantage over their peers, even if it means going under the knife.
Sadly the target market for plastic surgery is getting younger and younger, with girls as young as 14 getting eye jobs, nose jobs and even leg lengthening (!). It is oddly unsettling to see aggressive advertising campaigns targeting young girls on the subway. Some clinics offer mother daughter packages, two for one deals, and discounts on multiple procedures. I’ve even heard of clinics that hold ‘Cinderella events’ where young women receive free cosmetic surgery if they become the face, and body, of the clinic.
I recently discussed this topic with one of my friends, and was fascinated, albeit a little shocked, at her response.
In her class of high school students, she is one of the few girls who has not had plastic surgery. One of her closest friends had double eyelid surgery at just 16 years old, and has a nose job planned for her 19th birthday. Shocking? Yes, but there is no age limit on having surgery in Korea as long as there is parental consent.
At 17 years old she is already on a strict diet, has a carefully pieced together skincare regime which includes whitening cream, and is desperate to go to university where she will have the freedom to colour and perm her hair.
Before I do her an injustice, I should tell you that she is not as shallow and vain as she may sound. She is a 17 year old student who dreams of studying at Oxford and becoming a diplomat, and she works very hard to that end. She doesn’t spend her Saturday afternoons poring over the newest cosmetics or trying on the latest fashions, she spends them volunteering at an old people’s home. Whenever we meet she is dressed down in a tracksuit and flip flops, without even a scrap of make up. For her, surgery isn’t about vanity, it’s a necessity.
She looks a little embarrassed, perhaps even ashamed, as she admits that she wishes she didn’t want surgery, in particular a nose job. However the reality, at least in her eyes, is that if she wants to succeed in the competitive job market, and the even more competitive marriage market, she will need to have some ‘alterations’.
She is not alone in thinking that surgery will improve her employment prospects. More and more job applicants are starting to believe that looks are more important to an employer than competence, and many young women and men are going under the knife to increase their chances of securing a job.
Of course, there is a less glamorous side to cosmetic surgery. As the number of procedures carried out increases, so does the number of complications. In 2011 4,043 side effects from plastic surgery were reported, a huge jump from 1,698 in 2008. In 2010 a woman in Gwangju hanged herself after her surgery had gone wrong. My friend told me about one of her classmates who unfortunately had a botched eye job and was left with a swollen, bloody face for weeks afterwards. When I asked if this would dissuade her or her peers from getting eyelid surgery, she just shrugged and laughed nervously.